For as long as I can remember, my mum was always writing. Her brief career in journalism was brought to an end firstly by the birth of my older brother, Niki, and then by a move from London to Surrey to escape the dreadful London smogs. She decided to write her first novel around the time she became pregnant with me and it was published in 1954, when I was three years old. That began her long career as a writer. She was extremely disciplined and throughout our childhood her study was ‘out of bounds’ for much of the day. Interruptions were only allowed in exceptional circumstances: grazed knee – no!; possible fracture – maybe yes!
Photographs of Nina Bawden as a child taken from family archives – © the Beneficiaries of Nina Bawden 2017
As Niki and I – and later our baby sister Perdita – grew up, we became interested in books. Our parents read to us regularly and told us stories, but our constant complaint was that mum only wrote books for grown-ups, not for children like us. Eventually she gave in to our whingeing and started her first children’s book. She would never admit to influence by others, though, and declared that she would write it because she wanted to improve our reading. She was not impressed by my obsession with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories and she wanted to do better. She later said that she was ‘depressed by the books [her] sons were reading with their wooden characters uninvolved in any reality [she] recognised.’(I believe she was referring to the characters in the books and not to her sons!)
Photographs of Nina Bawden as a child taken from family archives
We were thrilled when she produced her first children’s book, The Secret Passage, in 1963. It was packed full of events that were immediately recognisable to us. Our real secret passage was a space under the sitting room of our house in Chertsey, which led to the identical space under our neighbour’s sitting room. We felt very wicked, sneaking through to trespass under their floorboards. It was a great place for us to play, to hide, to feast on sweets.
‘All our stories begin before we are born,’ wrote my mother, ‘not just the blue eyes or flat feet we inherit, but the stories we hear from uncles and aunts, from grandmothers and grandfathers.’ Nina’s mother was also a great storyteller and I am sure that she passed her gift on to her daughter, though Nina always said that it had come from her grandmother, who told her stories as a child, sitting on her knee. Reading Nina’s books, I know much of the reality on which the stories are based. The three children’s novels that Virago has published concern much of my family history, but it is retold in my mother’s inimitable way. Nina was a wonderful storyteller, but also a great listener. She would take stories, store them, and modify them so they became her own. When I read her books, I see people and places I know – familiar paintings and furniture – always recognisable, but altered in some way.
Carrie’s War is based on the many stories my mother used to tell us about her life-changing evacuation to Wales during the Second World War. Keeping Henry, the story of a family’s mischievous pet squirrel, is taken from her mother’s childhood, only Nina set it in the 1940s: just as the family must leave their home in London during the Blitz and adapt to life in the countryside, so a wild squirrel must learn to live in a domestic environment in order to survive. The Peppermint Pig is based on the story of Nina’s grandmother, whose mother bought a piglet from the milkman for a shilling, and the pig’s adventures that followed. Nina takes other elements from my family’s history and interweaves them, setting the tale thirty years later, when her mother was a child, and many details were from my grandmother’s childhood: like Poll’s father, her father, too, was unjustly accused of stealing from his employer, and went to seek his fortune in America; as a child, Nina’s uncle also found a tramp by the fire one morning, who was revealed to be his grandfather; like Poll’s mother, Nina’s grandmother had a suitor who threatened to shoot her if she wouldn’t marry him. Nina’s grandmother’s tales captured her imagination. She wrote in her autobiography:
‘My grandmother had a deep voice for such a small and feminine woman and if I close my eyes I can hear her tell the best story of all; my favourite, my brother’s favourite, my children’s favourite: “ Do you remember my telling you about old Granny Greengrass, how she lost her finger? Well, it was chopped off at the butcher’s when she was buying half a leg of lamb…”’
Which became the beginning of The Peppermint Pig.
My mother was always writing but she always wanted to be read. I am sure that she would have been delighted by Virago’s lovely new beautifully illustrated editions of some of her favourite children’s books.
Buy your Virago Modern Classic Nina Bawden collection here:
Text © Robert Bawden, 2017
Photographs from the Bawden family archives, © the Beneficiaries of Nina Bawden 2017
Illustrations © Alan Marks